(Shared Places): Tribal Cultures and Histories
isem 101 (42)  

Description and Goals
Course Themes
Course Requirements
Class Schedule
Your Guide to Writing a Reading
Indigenous Aesthetics
Indian Humor
Historical Trauma
Federal Indian Policy


Aesthetics: 1. a conception of what is artistically valid or beautiful   2. the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty;

Art: 1. human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature 2. the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty;

Indigenous Aesthetics

What do Native people tend to find beautiful and artistically valuable?

What beliefs and values guide their notions of what is artistically pleasing and valid?

 ·        Cherokee writer Daniel Justice: the “taproot of indigenous aesthetics is our stories, families, lands, artists, ceremonies, and language.”

·        A profound sense of place, which grows out of the linkage between the spiritual and the natural, is at the center of indigenous aesthetics.

·        For Native artists who are connected to tribal communities, art arises from place. Salish artist Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith writes that “Each tribe’s total culture is immersed in its specific area. Traditional foods, ceremonies and art come from the indigenous plants and animals as well as the land itself. The anthropomorphism of the land spawns the stories and myths. These things are the stuff of culture which keep identity intact.

·        Native peoples’ concern for cultural survival is paramount. How does expressive culture aid that survival?

·        Aesthetic practices are among the most central means of recovering and preserving native ways of seeing and being.

·        Visual and performance arts that express indigenous ideas about religion and nature may be the last surviving source of cultural identity as native peoples increasingly rely upon the ‘outside world’ for economic survival.

·        For Native people, art is an “essential mechanism for liberation” and survivance (resistance plus survival).

·        Where the West typically emphasizes “art for art’s sake,” indigenous people seem to emphasize “art for life’s sake” or “art for the community’s sake”.

·        Western aesthetics separates concepts such as beauty and the Good which had religious connotations for earlier theorists and artists.

·        The divorce of spirituality, beauty, and ethics from aesthetics contrasts with the continued interrelationship of these in indigenous aesthetics.

·        While Western thought is largely analytic, attempting to separate and reduce experience into its constituent parts for the purpose of mechanistic understanding, native thought is primarily synthetic involving a search for and appreciation of the connections between categories of experience.

·        Continuity of expression—whether its source is historical, religious, conceptual, generational, tribal, or cosmological—is a central ingredient of indigenous aesthetics.

·        For many a traditionally tribal spiritual reality “lies at the heart of indigenous art’s significance . . .  reflecting the traditional function of art in native cultures as a repository of ‘medicine’ or spiritual ‘presence’”.

·        Indigenous artists believe the experience of presence of place has the power to transform one’s relationship to the world.

·        Contemporary expressive forms can remind natives of their history prior to whites’ efforts at assimilation.

·        Constant references to history in indigenous art and media are not simply a romantic longing for the ‘good old days’ prior to white contact.

·        The retelling of history through traditional narratives and art helps maintain or revive communities. In a very real sense communities are constituted by their sense of the past.

·        With an underlying place-based value of survival and continuity, Natives are concerned about the future. They believe that expressive culture has the ability to imagine a future where indigenous communities survive and thrive.

As we explore indigenous expressive culture to identify place-based stories that account for continuity and change, some of the questions we’ll ask include:

Ø     What makes an artist or expressive form indigenous?

Ø     How do oral place-based stories exist in various expressive mediums such as written literatures, paintings, dance, music and film?

Ø     How do these stories and mediums create collective identity? 

Ø     What is the relationship between traditional and contemporary forms of indigenous expressive culture?

Ø     How do artists record and rewrite history to preserve community and to challenge stereotypes and colonialism? 

Ø     What do Native peoples mean by “sovereignty” and how does it relate to expressive culture?

Ø     How does indigenous art promote harmony and healing?